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Mae West Edit Profile

Actress

Mary Jane "Mae" West was an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seven decades.

Background

West was born in Bushwick, Brooklyn on August 17, 1893, having been delivered at home by an aunt who was a midwife. She was the eldest surviving child of John Patrick West and Matilda "Tillie" Delker (sometimes spelled "Dilker"). Delker and her five siblings emigrated with their parents, Jacob and Christiana, from the German state of Bavaria in 1886. West's parents married on January 18, 1889, in Brooklyn and reared their children as Protestants, although John West was of mixed Catholic-Protestant descent. Her father was a prizefighter known as "Battlin' Jack West" who later worked as a "special policeman", and later had his own private investigations agency. Her mother was a former corset and fashion model. Her paternal grandmother, Mary Jane (née Copley), for whom she was named, was of Irish Catholic descent, and West's paternal grandfather, John Edwin West, was of English-Scots descent and a ship's rigger.

Her eldest sibling, Katie, died in infancy. Her other siblings were Mildred Katherine West, later known as Beverly (December 8, 1898 – March 12, 1982), and John Edwin West, II (sometimes inaccurately called "John Edwin West, Jr."; February 11, 1900 – October 12, 1964). During her childhood, West's family moved to various parts of Woodhaven, as well as the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. In Woodhaven, at Neir's Social Hall (which opened in 1829 and is still extant), West supposedly first performed professionally.

Education

West was five when she first entertained a crowd at a church social, and she started appearing in amateur shows at the age of seven. She often won prizes at local talent contests. She began performing professionally in vaudeville in the Hal Clarendon Stock Company in 1907 at the age of 14. West first performed under the stage name "Baby Mae:, and tried various personas, including a male impersonator, She used the alias "Jane Mast" early in her career. Her trademark walk was said to have been inspired or influenced by female impersonators Bert Savoy and Julian Eltinge, who were famous during the Pansy Craze. Her first appearance in a Broadway show was in a 1911 revue A La Broadway put on by her former dancing teacher, Ned Wayburn. The show folded after eight performances, but at age 18, West was singled out and discovered by The New York Times. The Times reviewer wrote that a "girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing." West next appeared in a show called Vera Violetta, whose cast featured Al Jolson. In 1912, she appeared in the opening performance of A Winsome Widow as a "baby vamp" named La Petite Daffy.

Career

Even at such a young age, West wrote several plays under the pen name "Jane Mast" and was arrested for "Sex" on Broadway, receiving a 10-day jail sentence. Rumors ran rampant that while behind bars, she was permitted to wear silk underpants instead of the rough prison garb everyone else had to wear and that the warden wined and dined her every night. She was set free after serving eight days. Nonplussed, she appeared in a string of successful plays, including "The Drag," a 1927 play that was banned from Broadway because of its homosexual theme. She was an advocate of gay and transgender rights, but her belief that "a gay man was actually a female soul housed in a male body" ran counter to the belief at that time that homosexuality was an illness. Nevertheless, she was still considered a feminist and a hardcore supporter of the gay community. West continued to stir up controversy with her plays, including the Broadway smash "Diamond Lil" (1928), about a loose woman of the 1890s. She dominated the Broadway scene for many years to come, but she also set her eyes on another stage: Hollywood.

In 1932, Paramount Pictures courageously signed up the Broadway star. It was quite a feat at the time, for she was already considered a "mature" actress, but West looked younger than her 38 years. This youthful glow endured throughout the rest of her life and gave Hollywood's newest unlikely sex symbol an edge over her contemporaries. Her first film was "Night after Night" (1932), where she hated her small part in the film yet, true to form, she was allowed to rewrite her scenes. West stole the show during her first scene when the hatcheck girl complimented her baubles with "Goodness, what lovely diamonds." Without missing a beat, she exclaimed, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie."

West's gaining popularity boosted her co-stars' careers as well. In "She Done Him Wrong," she insisted that a young Cary Grant play opposite her. The movie not only put Grant on the map, but it was also a box office hit and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. She co-starred with Grant again in "I'm No Angel" (1933), also nominated for a Best Picture award. Both movies were box office successes, as was West, who, at that time, became the second highest paid actor in the country. It was the former film which contained, perhaps, the most misquoted line in film history delivered by West to Grant: "Why don't you come up some time and see me?" versus the incorrectly but famously quoted West line, "Why don't you come up and seem me sometime?"

Despite her box office pull, her blunt sexuality onscreen kept rubbing the censors the wrong way. In 1934, censors - in care of the infamous Hayes Code of onscreen ethics - began deleting overtly sexy lines and scenes from her films. To fight back, West increased the number of double entendres, hoping that the censors would delete the most offensive lines and miss the subtler ones. More controversial films followed, including the critically acclaimed "Klondike Annie" (1936) and one of her biggest hits "My Little Chickadee" (1940) from Universal Pictures, as well as Columbia Pictures' "The Heat's On" (1943). West was already 50 when she made "The Heat's On," but her youthful look and performance made the film a cult favorite.

West continued to shock her fans and critics on radio, making two appearances on Edgar Bergen's very popular show. In one sketch, she starred opposite Don Ameche as Adam and Eve; the dialogue between the two was so risqué that she was banned from being featured, or even talked about on NBC. The line that caused all the fury was directed at Ameche, "Get me a big one I feel like doing a big apple!" Aside from radio, she appeared on TV a few times and even recorded two successful rock albums, post her film heyday of the 1930s.

After a 26 year absence from film, she once again stole the limelight - from that era's sex symbol, Raquel Welch, no less - in her comeback role as Leticia Van Alen in "Myra Breckinridge" (1970). The movie tanked at the box office, but it brought the actress back to the forefront once again and garnered her a new generation of fans - many of whom were gay. She married once, to fellow vaudevillian Frank Wallace, in 1911. She denied the marriage at first, but legal records proved otherwise. The divorce papers were granted on May 7, 1943. But West was not without male companionship, even in her later years when she surrounded herself with young muscular men, employing them as bodyguards and chauffeurs.

Despite the decades, her looks continued to make headlines. In the 1970s, she was the only celebrity who permitted reporters to check her for signs of plastic surgery. None were found. At age 85, West graced the silver screen for the last time as Marlo Manners in "Sextette" (1978), leading many doctors to exclaim, "She has the health and body of a 35-year-old." West once said that she spent hours every day massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them looking young. The actress lived in Los Angeles for the remainder of her life, maintaining a residence on Ravenswood near Melrose Avenue. She was always gracious to her fans, corresponding with them personally and listing her phone number in Los Angeles so they could "call her and see her sometime!" In the summer of 1980, West suffered a concussion and a stroke. Later that year, she had another stroke and never recovered from it. She died at her apartment in Hollywood at age 87 on Nov. 22, 1980. Her fans' cries reverberated throughout the city. She was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn and her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was placed at 1560 Vine Street in Hollywood.

Works

Personality

Physical Characteristics : West, who was less than 5'2 tall, was rumored to have worn customized 8-inch platforms attached to her sh s to increase her stage presence. The 1911 revue "A La Broadway" was her first legitimate Broadway show; which she left after only a week's worth of performances. In 1913, the young, raven-haired girl performed a salacious "shimmy" dance for a song-sheet; the song was "Everybody Shimmies Now." Her mother was said to have approved of all of her daughter's performances, making her perhaps one of the first of the notorious stage mothers.

Connections

West was married on April 11, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Frank Szatkus, whose stage name was Frank Wallace, a fellow vaudevillian whom she first met in 1909. She was 17; he was 21. West kept the marriage a secret, but in 1935, after West had made several hit movies, a filing clerk discovered West's marriage certificate and alerted the press. An affidavit in which she had declared herself married, which she made during the Sex trial in 1927, was also uncovered. At first, West denied ever marrying Wallace, but she finally admitted in July 1937, in reply to a legal interrogatory, that they had been married. Although legally wed, the couple never lived together as husband and wife. She insisted they have separate bedrooms, and she soon sent him away in a show of his own to get rid of him. She obtained a legal divorce on July 21, 1942, during which Wallace withdrew his request for separate maintenance, and West testified that Wallace and she had lived together for only "several weeks". The final divorce decree was granted on May 7, 1943.

In August 1913, she met an Italian-born vaudeville headliner and star of the piano-accordion, Guido Deiro. Her affair went "very deep, hittin' on all the emotions." West later said, "Marriage is a great institution. I'm not ready for an institution yet."

West remained close to her family throughout her life and was devastated by her mother's death in 1930. In 1930, she moved to Hollywood and into the penthouse at the new Ravenswood apartment building, where she lived until her death in 1980.

West had a relationship with James Timony, an attorney 15 years her senior, in 1916, when she was a vaudeville actress. Timony was also her manager. By the time West was an established movie actress in the mid-1930s, they were no longer a couple. West and Timony remained extremely close, living in the same building, working together, and providing support for each other until Timony's death in 1954.

At 61, West became romantically involved with one of the muscle men in her Las Vegas stage show, wrestler, former Mr. California, and former merchant marine Chester Rybinski. He was 30 years younger than West, and later changed his name to Paul Novak. He soon moved in with her, and their romance continued until West's death in 1980 at age 87. Novak once commented, "I believe I was put on this Earth to take care of Mae West."

father:
John Patrick West

mother:
Matilda (Delker-Dolger) West

spouse:
Frank Wallace

partner:
PAUL NOVAK